Mexico's Constitutional Reform on Transparency & Access to Information
Dr. Alonso Lujambio
President of the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI)
Alonso Lujambio discussed the importance of the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Institute of Access to Information (IFAI) to Mexico's transition to a transparent democracy. The IFAI is an autonomous institution of the federal government, set up to oversee compliance with the Law on Transparency and Access to Information (similar to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act), which was implemented in June 2003. The IFAI settles controversies between citizens and public agencies over the release of information. The IFAI, explained Lujambio, has the mandate of promoting the right of access to information and training public servants regarding matters of access to information. The request instrument, the System of Information Requests (SISI), is online, which allows for a very democratic and transparent program. Lujambio detailed some of its advantages, which include free access, effective monitoring and an enforced response time of twenty days. From its founding in June 2003 to June 2007, the IFAI received 218,352 requests for information, amounting to more than 148 requests a day. Lujambio added that the IFAI is the first institution of its kind in Latin America and its success has been commended by organizations such as the World Bank and Human Rights Watch.
Despite its success, Lujambio emphasized that the IFAI and Mexico's transparency laws still face many challenges. One major challenge is the disconnect between federal and state transparency laws. Certain states have been slower to enact their own transparency laws, and in their resistance created laws that are weak or exclude potential users. While the SISI system does not ask for identification, thus not tracking or excluding certain citizens, eighteen state laws require identification. Lujambio observed that some states, like Quintana Roo, which has a high number of non-Mexican residents, require that the petitioner be native. Others, including Tlaxcala, do not pay its commissioners a salary, providing little motivation to advance the transparency process. Still others do not have an institute to resolve appeals and transparency controversies, forcing citizens to turn to the judicial process, which is costly and takes a great deal of time. The recent passage of a major constitutional change that will require states and municipalities to adopt common standards for access to information is a major step forward, according to Lujambio, but the implementation process will not be easy.
Lujambio presented a second challenge of the IFAI: increasing knowledge of and encouraging the use of the Right of Access to Public Information throughout the Mexican society. Awareness of the law remains low: while the number of those who no nothing about the law has dropped from 88% in 2003 to 51% in a 2006 poll, this is still far too high. Futhermore, Lujambio pointed out, a full 41.1% of the requests come from Mexico City and an additional 12.5% from the neighboring State of Mexico. He argued that much more needs to be done to promote the law outside the metropolitan area of the capital.